3 Simple Tips for Self-Editing a Novel

Edit your book

When you have a story on your fingertips, the hardest part isn’t writing it, it’s self-editing.

During the crazy marathon that is the first draft, it’s easy to get carried away and misspell things, drop a rogue comma here and there, or repeat words.

But before you get your cheque-book out and hire a professional editor, you should get stuck into the book and weed out as many errors as you can.

It’s great practice.

Self-Editing- Weed out the errors
Self-Editing- Weed out the errors

I always struggle with checking my work for flaws. After all, I know exactly what I want to say and what I’m trying to convey. And this is the problem.

When I read the fruits of my labour, I read what I know. I fill in the blanks as my eye moves across the page.

I see the unwritten words that I meant to write instead of what’s actually there. And worst of all, I don’t notice the omitted words because my mind’s eye takes over.

These are but a few of the pitfalls that catch out many writers. So, how do we avoid them?

Well, my answer comes in three simple steps.

  1. Read your work out loud
  2. Removing redundancies
  3. Share your work for feedback

Before we go on, I just want to make it clear that this isn’t a super, in-depth, bulletproof self-editing guide. These are just the first three things I do to make the book readable.

But if you want a guide on major changes, try THIS article.

1, Read it out loud.

Read your novel out loud
Read your novel out loud

If you’re anything like me, you’ll cringe at the sound of your own voice when reading your words out loud.

I always start in a whisper; mumbling the words that I’ve read a thousand times in my head.

The slightest noise in the house stops me dead in my tracks– embarrassment, shyness – call it what you will. But the truth is, until you’re comfortable hearing yourself reading the words aloud, there’ll always be a chance you’ll miss something.

To add to this, you must read the words with the emotion that you’re trying to invoke. Read it like you’re telling the story for the very first time.

You must feel it in order for your readers to feel it.

I’ve heard of writers crying at their own writing, or sitting at their desk seething in anger at the actions of their villains. This is because the words that appear on the page are born from raw emotion. And this is what you should aim for.

When you read it out loud, the words should magnify the feeling.

Try this quick exercise:

Choose a chapter from your book. Find a quiet place in the house, garage, car… anywhere that you know you won’t be disturbed. Then, read it words out loud and use the tone and cadence you intended.

If anything trips you up, highlight it and fix it because this is what will pull the audience out of the story.

The more you apply this exercise to your work, the less it will bother you. And in the long-run, your writing will improve exponentially.

2, Remove redundant words, sentences, paragraphs

Have you ever watched a movie/T. V show and there’s a baby crying? Then, the baby is still crying. Then, the baby keeps on crying–we get it! The kid is upset and it’s causing tension in the scene.

A similar phenomenon happens in writing.

It’s a mid-December’s morning and the character’s breath floats on the chilled air. Great, we can visualise how cold it is.

There’s a crunch from the frozen grass beneath his/her feet as they walk across the whitewashed field. Lovely, I’m there and I feel like I need to wrap up warm.

The character’s scarf is protecting their neck and their thick woollen gloves are making it hard to throw the ball for the dog. Cool. I can relate to that.

But do we need a full page of narrative to explain how cold it is? Probably not.

I read a book recently that did just this.

The first time it happened; I didn’t really notice. But the second time caused an eye roll. Then the it happened again, and again, and again. Soon, I was skimming the pages to find the next part of the story.

Also, I realised the story could’ve been captured in half the number of pages.

Not only does this waste time, but it removes the reader from the story. They want to keep moving forward, not dwelling on something that doesn’t really do anything other than show off the observational skills of the author.

We can say the same for dialogue. Keep it on point.

There’s a lot said in real life that is said without words. But that doesn’t mean the reader wants to hear about all the little shifts and glances and gulps of a character during a conversation.

Exercise time:

Choose a chapter, read it out loud, and if you feel like your eyes are skipping ahead, it’s likely your reader’s eyes will too.

If you can remove the sentence, line, or paragraph and it doesn’t negatively affect the story, the book can survive without it.

Cut it.

3, Sharing your work for feedback.

I don’t claim to be the next great novelist, nor do I proclaim to be the font of all knowledge, but I know enough to know that I don’t know enough (if that makes sense).

I know I need a second and third set of eyes.

After finishing my MS, I printed it off and give it to a beta reader (my mother-in-law). She read it and looked for main storyline continuity. The only thing I wanted to know was, does it make sense?

Of course, she circled spelling mistakes along the way, which was handy, but her primary job was to highlight passages that didn’t quite ring true or strayed from the path.

When she finished, she gave me helpful feedback which gave me plenty to think about and plenty to fix. God bless her.

When I made the revisions, I needed a new set of eyes. A well-read friend did the second read-through.

His job was to look for continuity issues with the characters, plot and sub-plot. In doing so, he made character cards for each person in the book and was able to deliver some great feedback. This was brilliant, and now, I use character cards.

Continuity is not just about things like describing the blue eyes of a character in one scene, then referring to their brown eyes in another. It’s also about ensuring the characteristics are maintained throughout.

An example could be that a character is introduced and she is loud and boisterous. Then, without warning, she becomes timid or shy.

And even though there is always an element of personal growth for character as they move through the story, the development must be in-keeping with their personality and the journey.

Another exercise:

Choose a chapter. Read it out loud and think about the character’s actions and words.

Do they still ring true to the character in your mind? Are you accurately describing them consistently?

Beta readers. Share your book
Beta readers. Share your book

Final thoughts

If you’ve never self-edited a book before, the task can be overwhelming; more-so than writing the first draft.

Self-editing is something that can take just as long as the initial writing phase. This not a bad thing.

But when you’re knee-deep in revisions and re-writes, you might feel like you have no business “trying” to be a writer.

Don’t worry. We all have that feeling. We all doubt ourselves from time to time.

The key is to keep on keeping on.

The more you work within the pages, the better you will become. And the difference is quite noticeable.

Soon, you’ll be holding your book in your hand, and hopefully, getting ready to write the next on.

Good luck.

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